Hundreds and thousands of refugees and migrants are preyed upon every year by human traffickers with false promises of a better future, a home. And with nowhere to go, no roof over their heads, no land to call home, the refugees easily fall for the trap. Sometimes knowingly. For instance, desperate Rohingya families often rely on traffickers to send their daughters to Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries, to get married to suitors through traffickers, paying a hefty sum for the privilege. Despite the uncertainties of the journey and in the intention of these unreliable men, the despairing refugee families have no recourse but to entrust the safety of their daughters with them. A column titled, "Trafficking in Rohingya: Exploiting the desperate", written late last year by me documents in detail the vulnerabilities of the Rohingya refugees to trafficking, especially women and girls, who are often sold into sex slavery.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates, human trafficking business generates a profit of around USD 150 billion a year globally. The number of human trafficking victims as per ILO data is around 25 million. And the victims are mostly the poor, the destitute and of course the refugees.
Covid-19, unfortunately, has only made it easier for traffickers to entrap the homeless. The number of refugees in the world, as per UNHCR estimates currently stands at 25.9 million, half of them under the age of 18. A decade ago the number of refugees was 15.2. In the last 10 years, the number of refugees has increased by 10.2 million people—on average a million a year.
With the fast-spreading pandemic bringing a halt to nations around the world and drastically slowing down economic activities, many refugees—who used to earn their living with menial jobs—have had to take the hit. With the jobs gone, and with it their means of living, many are now being forced to seek alternative ways of earning their subsistence.
And the ones who are living inside the controlled refugee camps are also feeling the brunt of this pandemic. For one, with governments stretching their resources to help their citizens in the fight against this global health emergency, the refugees are not often making it to the top of the priority lists.
For instance, the Covid-19 outbreak has pushed the Syrian refuges into further desperation. According to the UNHCR, "The number of vulnerable refugees who lack the basic resources to survive in exile has dramatically surged as a result of the public health emergency. The refugee hosting communities in countries in Syria's neighbourhood experience similar hardships. Many refugees have lost what were already meagre incomes, forcing them to cut down on the most basic needs, including food and medication... Refugee households are taking on additional debt and are not able to pay their rent anymore. Serious protection risks are growing, including risks of child labour, gender-based violence, early marriage and other forms of exploitation."
Driven by poverty, hunger, neglect and helplessness, refugees are resorting to taking desperate measures to better their lives, often relying on the false promises of human traffickers. According to a report by the University of Birmingham, as published by The Guardian newspaper, "in some countries there had been increased targeting by traffickers as well as pressure put on children to enter into marriages."
The situation in the Palestinian camps are also dire. According to a report by Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité (CIDSE), an umbrella organisation for Catholic development agencies from Europe and North America, Gaza's healthcare system is "particularly ill-equipped to handle a Covid-19 outbreak and cater to the needs of its nearly 2 million inhabitants in view of serious shortage of staff, infrastructure, equipment and medicine crucial for containment and treatment of Covid-19 cases... Mental and psychological effects as well as a risk of increased domestic violence are equally alarming."
Unfortunately, the fate of the 70.8 million forcibly displaced population—that has increased by 27.5 million in the last 10 years—is more or less the same if not worse. From Ethiopia and Uganda to Jordan and Bangladesh, refugees around the world are now being pushed against the wall by the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the spread of the disease, what has taken a turn for the worse is the risk of human trafficking. INTERPOL suggests that, "COVID-19, and measures being taken by countries to control its spread, are impacting crime around the world, including migrant smuggling and human trafficking." The agency further added that, "The economic consequences will significantly impact peoples' desire and ability to migrate, as well as the incentive and opportunities for criminals to profit from illegal migration which is also expected to increase."
Unfortunately, with borders closed, the traffickers have become more sinister in their handling of the trafficking victims. According to an INTERPOL report, in March this year, 68 male migrants died inside a shipping container loaded on the back of a lorry while crossing into Mozambique from Malawi. The most likely cause of death was asphyxia.
The very recent case of the Rohingya refugees stranded at sea, with the traffickers demanding money from their relatives for their release is known to us all. The refugees had embarked on a desperate journey in search of a better future in a different land. Now they are stuck in the middle of the sea at the mercy of their captors, with nowhere to go. And where would the refugees go, they don't even have a home.
The world today is filled with refugees. Home is what the world owes them—but we have failed miserably at it. Those that are fortunate find refuge in cramped camps and no-man's land. There they live without the rights we have learnt to take for granted—right to a basic livelihood, a life that is not constantly under threat, a place that one can call home, a right to a life with dignity.
Part of the problem is the term "refugee" itself—it obfuscates the sickness with the symptom. But having lost their homes, the very thing that anchors our identity, they have no defence against spurious labels. The vicious geo-politics that have held millions of lives in its merciless sway generation after generation, should not distract us from the plain fact—these men, women and children are not refugees looking for refuge, they are the homeless in search of homes.
In failing to protect the dignity of these rootless communities, we are eroding our own right to it, bit by bit.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem